It is in this political landscape that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a significant force over the last decade (PTI)
It is in this political landscape that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a significant force over the last decade (PTI)

In Kerala, the politics of identity and BJP’s rise will affect UDF and LDF

Slowly, a sizeable chunk of the Nairs and a large section of the Ezhavas have aligned with the BJP, making a huge dent in the political base of both the Fronts, particularly the Left
By Burton Cleetus
UPDATED ON APR 01, 2021 08:20 PM IST

The slogan of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala, in this election, is urappaanu LDF (LDF for sure). As of now, the LDF indeed seems set to retain power, thanks to its relatively positive governance record. If this happens, it will mark a new turn in politics in a state which has traditionally alternated between the Marxist-led LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) for the last 40 years. A change in this voting pattern will impact social and communitarian life in Kerala.

Traditionally, the Left has been supported by the Nairs, Ezhavas, Dalits and some of the economically backward communities and groups, cutting across religious lines. The UDF has relied on a coalition of the economically powerful Syrian Christians, Muslims and a section of the Nairs. Beneath the veneer of a progressive political ethic are religious sentiments, which often decide voting patterns.

In the past, the church has had an uneasy relationship with what it considered a godless Left. However, a few decades ago, the Left’s animosity towards the Christian community shifted to the Muslims in north Kerala who had emerged as a powerful constituent of the UDF.

It is in this political landscape that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a significant force over the last decade. Slowly, a sizeable chunk of the Nairs and a large section of the Ezhavas have aligned with the BJP, making a huge dent in the political base of both the Fronts, particularly the Left.

But a significant development is the unexpected support that the Left is getting from the Syrian Christians. The genesis of this lies in the clash between two sections of the Syrian church — the Orthodox and the Jacobites — over the possession of church properties. A recent Supreme Court (SC) verdict went in favour of the Orthodox. The Congress decided to wait and watch while the Left mediated on behalf of the Jacobite church. This has gained it some goodwill in the community.

Similarly, the heads of the Syrian Catholic church, who had traditionally backed the UDF, have decided to align with the Left.

In the run-up to the assembly elections, the Left was able to pull the Syrian Christian-dominated Kerala Congress out of the UDF. The reason cited by the Kerala Congress for this shift was the so-called “love jihad” by Muslim men against Christian women. The decision was clearly based on anti-Muslim sentiment, which has helped the LDF expand its political base among the Christians while also becoming more politically attractive to traditional Hindu voters.

The Congress, too, has been trying to expand its Hindu base. When the SC decision to allow women to enter Sabarimala temple triggered a backlash among conservative sections of the Hindus, the party opposed the court verdict in the hope that it could shed its reputation as a party of the minorities.

However, here it came up against the BJP, towards which conservative Hindus are veering. In the process, the Congress runs the risk of neither gaining ground among the conservative Hindus, nor getting support from liberal Hindus.

This election is crucial primarily for the Congress because a loss would mean a shift in its Hindu vote to the BJP, and not its traditional rival, the Left. The BJP would then emerge as a major opposition party. If the Congress is defeated, the Left-of-Centre buffer zone it represents will be eroded.

The people would then have two clear choices — the Left, which caters to the Christian and Muslim minorities, and the BJP which represents hardline Hindu politics. As the Left moves to accommodate the minorities, it will have to cede a large part of its Hindu vote base to the BJP.

As minority votes are concentrated in a few districts, the possible consolidation that the Left hopes for may not be enough to tilt the political balance in its favour. The decline of the Congress in the long-run will mean that both the LDF and UDF will be diminished, leaving the space wide open for the growth of the BJP.

Burton Cleetus teaches modern history at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

The views expressed are personal

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